Millions of Asians turned their eyes skyward yesterday for the longest solar eclipse of the century, sending awe through two of the world's most populous countries.
Starting from India just after dawn, the eclipse was visible across a wide swath of China and the rest of the Asian continent before moving over southern Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.
The moon passes between the sun and the earth during a total solar eclipse in the northern Indian city of Varanasi July 22, 2009. [Agencies]
The eclipse was the longest since July 11, 1991, when a total eclipse lasting 6 minutes and 53 seconds was visible from Hawaii to South America.
Yesterday's phenomenon was forecast to be the longest of its kind until 2132.
In central China, crowds gathered along the high dykes of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. They roared and waved goodbye as the last sliver of sun disappeared and plunged the city into darkness, even as clouds cheated them of part of the spectacle.
"As soon as the total eclipse happened, the clouds closed in so we couldn't see the crown of gas surrounding the sun. That's a pity," said Zhen Jun, a man whose work unit had given him the day off to enjoy the spectacle. But eclipse viewers in the region were still luckier than those in the coastal cities near Shanghai, where overcast skies and rain in some places blocked the view of the sun entirely.
Tens of thousands of eclipse watchers in the financial hub thronged the bank of its Huangpu River to witness the event, even though the China Meteorological Administration had forecast weather in many cities along the full eclipse path would not be favorable for its viewing.
Up to 5,000 astronomy enthusiasts gathered at the suburban Yuehu Park of Sheshan Observatory and the Yangshan Deep Water Port, two prime spots in Shanghai for observing the eclipse.
Cities in the Yangtze River valley, including Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou, turned on their streetlights to ensure a smooth traffic flow in the darkness.
Shanghai turned off all landscape lighting to allow people to better watch the event.
Local traffic departments sent out extra police to prevent traffic jams during rush hour.
Shanghai sent out about 3,000 traffic officers to deal with heavy traffic, while additional police patrols were deployed on the city's major streets to prevent traffic congestion.
In Anji and Zhoushan, in Zhejiang province, the weather was considered clear enough to observe the complete duration of the solar eclipse, which began at 9:30 am.
Zhang Gang, a food vendor at Anji's Tianhuangping resort, regretted two things - not preparing enough food to sell and not studying English harder when he was in school or at least hiring a translator to help with the brisk business.
More than 6,000 visitors, mostly foreigners, arrived at the resort.
By 6:30 am, Zhang had sold out all the 100 boiled eggs and dozens of steamed corn sticks he had prepared for the visitors.
Richard Mankowski, 61, of the US, had brought a chair all the way from Hangzhou to enjoy the solar eclipse "in a comfortable way".
"The whole eclipse would last for more than two hours. Why not?" asked Mankowski cheerfully. He bought it the day he arrived at Hangzhou. Most of his 40 traveling companions also brought their own.
In Yichang, a city of 1 million with many of its residents working at the gigantic Three Gorges and Gezhouba hydroelectric power plants, there were also many visitors.
"I tried to book two rooms Tuesday morning at local hotels but I couldn't get even one," said Li Quansheng, a sales manager.
Many other locals started preparations days earlier.
Liu Jieke, 20, a student of Southwest University of Finance and Economics, said his family video camera was so old that he didn't get a good recording.
"The best was what I saw with my naked eye, using a pair of the goggles," Liu told China Daily. "And it was just stunning."
From farmers to migrant workers, those in Chongqing's Hailong village also took in the solar eclipse without the frills.
"The sun got bitten," said villager Wang Wenbi, 56, as she passed the protective goggles to others around her.
"The heavenly dog ate the sun," she laughed.
Outside a factory, Zhong Xiaopei, who was visiting her mother, watched the moon shadowing the sun to leave a bright ring of light in the darkened sky.
"Isn't it like the Olympic Ring?" she said.
Amid the darkness, an air of awe and fear seemed to surround the area.
Villagers were strangely quiet. Even the poultry remained silent.
But at 9:17 am, a spot of light appeared from the cover of the moon, instantly brightening up the sky.
"I am sad this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon was so short. But maybe that is why it is so beautiful," said Chen Zuohong, a village official.
"It is the memory that stays."
Wang Zhuoqiong in Chongqing and Wang Hongyi in Shanghai and AP contributed to the story